Ozymandias or, when a city dies

By skepticlawyer

reliques_01I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away

— Percy Shelley

I’ve often wondered, when travelling to distant places and seeing the remains of ancient civilisations — at how people seemed simply to up and leave. Schools and theatres abandoned, programmes left on the seats, libraries still stocked with books. In my youth, I used to put it down to natural disasters: those Greeks and Romans insisted on living beside volcanoes, or in earthquake zones, or in the path of raging floods.

This photo essay (describing, with mordant accuracy, the slow end of Motown) gives the lie to my thoughtless assumptions: we moderns walk away too, property only slightly disturbed, books still on the shelves, our grands projets still more or less intact.

reliques_09Detroit is dying, and its people — like the ancients — are slowly abandoning it, as though it were trapped in a silted harbour, like Bruges in the days post its economic pomp. The glorious railway station — something akin to the fascist monument in Milan — is empty, its windows broken from the ground up. The schools have desks, while the dentist did not take his expensive chair with him as he fled. A pile of National Geographics — picked out thanks to their distinctive yellow borders — are piled casually in the middle of a schoolroom floor.

In the future, one suspects, the archaeologists will come upon this place and write their theories. Perhaps they will be less surprised at the manner of the citizens’ departure than I am.


  1. Posted March 14, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    A speaker at the (Sydney) Centre for Independent Studies the other night, Jerry Jordan, said you had to be in the US to get the full impact of streets full of boarded-up shops of all kinds, including businesses that were thriving nation-wide chains.

    Apart from that, not a lot new for people who have read “Meltdown” by Thomas Woods.

  2. Posted March 14, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Undergrad spoof on Ozymandius

    I once met a traveller from a disant land
    Where he swore that all the dirt was sand.
    Amidst this waste there stood a strange erection
    Labelled, “Vote Ozymandius, next election”.

  3. Posted March 14, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Marcus’s ‘Renew Newcastle’ project, and his thoughts about ways to reuse abandon buildings/banks in the wake of economic changes seem pertinent.

    Plenty of examples spring to mind that I’ve seen with my own eyes – abandoned warehouses in New Zealand, the empty stores in Newcastle, or even the somewhat-diminished grandeur of Victorian train stations. (I’m told that the whole second floor of Flinders Street Station is barely used at all.) Guess we’re always just a step or two away from our own civilisation’s permanent collapse!

  4. Jack Hackett
    Posted March 15, 2009 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps you should have juxtaposed the Ozymandias article on that of the one above it, poor Kevin, its all going to fall about him.


  5. Caz
    Posted March 15, 2009 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    They keep threatening to do *something* with that second floor Timmy. Flinders Street Station used to play host to no end of wonderful events and dances in that enormous ballroom. Long before my time, mind.

    Funny thing is, tucked away, smack bang in the midst of the CBD, most people don’t even know it’s there, just above their noses – now that’s serious abandonment!

  6. Posted March 16, 2009 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    When I visited Ballarat via their train stations, it was educational comparing the opulence of their former dining room (photographs available on the walls of tables set for four course meals) with what it had become – a tacky, cheap, plastic cafe with a coke machine and very little else.

    I’d love to see the second floor put to good use; in this day and age you’d imagine it would be made into a second floor restaurant. Whoever’s responsible should take a leaf out of the New Yorker song book – Grand Central Station, which has had disused sections turned into a restaurants, cafes and markets following on from earlier plans for demolition. It’s now a major tourist attraction.

  7. Posted March 16, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Ah yes – History returns.

    It’s of course possible that things will turn around. If so you can pick up a shitload of property in Detroit on the cheap. Maybe Eminem will start something. He seems to be the only resident that has a job.

    It will be very hard on the Americans. But it always happens. Civilizations fly high and then they fall – fast.

    Bright side tho’ when things pick up a bit the art’s fantastic.

  8. Caz
    Posted March 17, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    The olden days were beautiful, at least in the photo’s Timmy. Probably didn’t seem that way to people at the time. A civil era of napkins and cutlery and real meals, not to mention thick shakes with a foamy, creamy few inches at the top of the cold metal container.

    Grand Central Station is truly magnificent. Wasn’t Jackie Kennedy / Onasisisisisis a driving supporter of the venture?

    Anyway, the outcome beats the pants off our Flinders Street concourse. Gawd, what a dismal disappointment. Tens of millions for a vast, tiled, empty area, hemmed with fast food and coffee joints. Did anyone think about this?

    SK – I reckon we couldn’t possibly do a worse job of the ballroom than the concourse or the hideous Federation Square that sits in all its ugly glory across the way.

  9. Posted March 17, 2009 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    SL, thank you for this post. That was some photo essay.

  10. Posted March 18, 2009 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    I wonder if you’d have to validate your ticket every time you attend a ball, Caz, just like with Flinders Street Concourse?

    Judging from the current people who habituate Flinders Street Station, the results could be truly terrifying!

  11. Posted March 18, 2009 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Hey, if Myki is ever implemented (hee hee, hee hee) people might have to swipe every time they get on and off the dance floor Tim.

    If you think the Concourse is scary, you’ve clearly never spent five minutes at Dandenong or Frankston stations.

  12. Posted March 18, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    the hideous Federation Square

    Nay! ‘Tis beautiful.

  13. Posted March 18, 2009 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    It’s an eyesore, a blight, an aesthetically challenged pile of bits, interrupted with a large, empty spread of concrete (nice homage to our local Greek community, that last bit).

    It’s not architecture, it’s dog vomit, and impossible to navigate dog vomit to boot.

  14. Posted March 18, 2009 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Caz – I’m not entirely certain but I’m getting this vague feeling you don’t like Fed Sq as much as I do. 🙂

  15. Posey
    Posted March 18, 2009 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    What is it with Greeks? What exactly do they have against the merest blade of grass?

  16. Posted March 18, 2009 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    They don’t have any grass.

  17. Posted March 18, 2009 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Nay! ‘Tis beautiful.

    Adrien, I could be wrong, but I’m wondering if even you like Fed Square as much as you do … 😉

  18. Posted March 18, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    I do. I really dig it.

    I used to catch the tram to work past it as it was going up. I don’t know what it is. I just don’t go thru that hating modern architecture thing.

    I like the old stuff as well. Good architecture should always be applauded.

  19. Caz
    Posted March 18, 2009 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Adrien – ya think I don’t like it, hey, hey?


    You should hear me talk about the buildings I don’t like! Would make you blush.

    The difficulty is that it’s not modern, it’s crap. Reminds me of something vague, yet deeply unattractive from the 70s, like treads, or skinheads.

    I get modern, I don’t get garbage, particularly when it’s ugly on the outside and absurdly laid out on the inside (even the sighted need a guide dog to find their way around).

    Remember doing those cardboard and cellophane paper abstract pictures when you were little?

    Well, THAT’S what Federation Square looks like, a kids messy bit of Friday afternoon art, from several decades ago.

  20. Posey
    Posted March 18, 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Ok, your homework, or rather, reward, Caz, is Elizabeth Farrelly’s brilliant “Blubberland”.

2 Trackbacks

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